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It Pays to Play - Where are the post-Mifid opportunities for the real market participants?

The global capital markets industry is dealing with the evolving challenge of liquidity fragmentation resulting from business, IT and regulatory change under MiFID and regNMS. This free webcast from F...

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First Published 16th March 2009. Links proving point view updated since this date.

Despite massive successive capital injections, big banks on government life support continue to be battered from pillar to post confirming what a blind man could have told you a long time ago: the self proclaimed Masters of the Universe have been walking zombies for years and the reality continues to be that insolvent banks cannot be helped with an injection of public funds any more than a dead body can be resuscitated with a massive blood transfusion. While government had prayed and hoped its rickety bailout plan would nurture the sick banks back to health and “presto” they would start to contribute to economic growth, the undeniable fact is that banks have been unable and/or unwilling to use the massive trillion dollar capital injections from tax payers for anything other than temporarily papering over the cracks of their own terminal condition, whilst continuing to use their millions of clients as a most potent bargaining chip with government.

It is fantasy to think that the international financial crisis (which has been brewing for more than 15 years) could be fixed in a mere matter of months with a simple remedy: THROW MONEY AT IT!  The wealth, which was created for years by the acceptance of housing prices far in excess of fair market value, was neither real nor earned.  It was created fictitiously with fraudulent bond issuances, corrupt debt ratings agencies, dodgy accounting practices, and the packaged sale of convoluted financial products that no one will probably ever be able to properly value because, at a basic level, they were simply commission generating machines for greedy bankers with extremely long fingernails.

The financial system has thus been overwhelmed by downward pressure on asset prices, as the very visible hand of the markets takes back a huge swathe of unearned value.  And the effect is being felt and even amplified throughout the world economy.  Given the magnitude of the damage inflicted, it’s simply a matter of time before all major insolvent banks are taken over by government and put out of their misery and fully nationalised. Some say this should have happened a long, long time ago as it would, at a stroke, have dispelled doubt and brought certainty, and then stability, to the world’s financial system, thereby immediately unclogging the veins of these frail walking zombies. Some Western governments recognized this reality earlier than others. In Q1 2009, Germany became the latest country to authorize the nationalisation of its banks.  This followed similar intervention taken in Iceland, Ireland and the UK, which have all been forced to admit that full nationalisation may be the only way to prevent the collapse of entire financial systems. However, rather than seizing banks and actively suing bank executives for what, in many instances, was patently fraudulent conduct, glass house politicians instead tried to gently cajole top bankers into line. In this respect, the disproportionate influence of Goldman Sachs & JPMorgan Chase on the Federal Reserve Bank in the U.S. ("too big to fail"?) and the Knighting of various Zombie directors in the UK for "Services to the Banking Industry" is telling. This limp-wristed attempt at getting bankers to come clean has resulted in major banks progressively and gradually being outed in a sequence directly proportional to their Senior Executives' skills at duping financial markets about the true state of their loan books. Today, even those half zombie banks that actually acquired companies during the worst days of the crisis to "prove" they were not in crisis are finally, if sheepishly, coming to the altar of government forced feeding and sheepishly tucking into tax payers’ money.…

A nationalisation program effectively forces zombie banks out of denial and into government control, whether this is assumed by the latter or not.  The banks are then cleaned of their so-called toxic assets (B-A-D D-E-B-T-S to you and me), recapitalised with public funds, to be “eventually” sold off to private investors, eventually leaving existing shareholders out in the cold with virtually nothing. As the dust begins to settle, so the commercial vacuum left by the zombies has revealed huge new opportunities for well positioned independent institutions (of which more below), but also terrible conflicts of interest that governments would rather not have to deal with: 1.)What do they do with thousands of financial subsidiaries they now own (as an example, U.S. bank Citi has 427 ofshore subsidiaries) whose only aim appears to be to connive at depriving them (and other governments) of taxes? 2.) How do they objectively justify continuing ownership of these subsidiaries to voters, tax payers, Unions, far left socialists?

Governments talk of “arms length” as if it were some type of political prophylactic to isolate them from all ills including the “O” word, but the truth is that they have already been sitting between a Rock and a politically very hard place for some time now. An interesting case in point was that of a Luxembourg offshore stockbroker which in late 2008 studiously began avoiding the “O” word immediately after it was taken over by government. After having invested many hundreds of thousands of Euros over a period of years promoting itself with the catch phrase ‘your Offshore stockbroker in L...’ it replaced these adverts with ones depicting a bunch of Cowboys stalking the range drawling of 'cash cows' and ‘invesdmend oppurtoonities’. Although hardly in line with what one would expect in terms of advertising fare from a European institution, the inescapable conclusion is that these cowboys must surely have served their intended purpose by proving to the broker's new masters that this broker would not utter the O word. This particular institution's pre-emptive strike therefore speaks volumes for the concept (and yes, it is a concept) that government can keep “arm’s length” because the reality is very different, especially, if it can come back to bite you as this certainly can.

Another interesting conundrum involves the UK government which is the proud owner of thousands of offshore financial institutions but is most reluctant to kick the tyres of these “offshore departments”, probably for fear it might catch political gangrene and we know what happens to gangrenous limbs.  The reason is that governments already know that zombie banks may take up to a decade to return to their former healthy selves and, the longer they take to repay their debts, the more pressing -and the more politically insidious- this conflict will be to manage. The mix is so pungent, the incompatibility so obvious that it is difficult to draw any other conclusion other than that governments will end up being forced to lop off of these politically toxic appendages as soon as public opinion starts to ratchet up the pressure, most probably in the second half of 2009. The nearer the General Elections, the more toxic they will become. But offloading them will be very difficult; it will be no cake walk and will be fraught with mine fields if only because the majority of these institutions are legitimately profitable and governments will need to sit “on their tongues” and resist a strong political temptation of throwing them -or their jurisdiction- to the dogs before they go on the block. For the IRS, it will be an unwritten pact with the devil himself but with precious little room, if any, for manoeuvre. If government decides to take a pot shot at these easy targets, it would be throwing away millions of Pounds of potential tax payers’ money by driving billions more away, making it go from “arm’s length” to “out of reach” in opaque jurisdictions farther away.  

And then there are the databases... Whilst you can bet your bottom dollar the zombies will take their time feeding at the Tax Payers Fest, you can be equally sure that they will take their time building up their Balance Sheets by pursuing strategies focused on bread and butter commercial and retail banking so that they are really fat and juicy when the bell finally rings for reprivatisation to begin. The near certainty of long delays in any reprivatisation program is more than enough to chill the bones of any politician worth his salt because the longer it takes, the proportionately stronger will the political urge be to access offshore client databases legally owned and technically controlled by the State. But then just a whiff, even a small whiff of access to the forbidden ofshore fruit would be enough to convert politically toxic assets into commercially toxic assets, at a stroke: a Lose-Lose if there ever was one, even for a politician.

Meanwhile, on the positive side of this political quagmire, major commercial opportunities have arisen in the void vacated by the zombies for independent and well positioned institutions to exploit if they are not compromised with government or government-owned zombies. The gigantic commercial vacuum vacated by the zombies has already been filled by independent institutions, financial specialists in specific areas who know how to control risk and they are digging in. These independents range from deep discount brokers to pure execution brokers to prime brokers to independent asset managers and retail banks operating in very specific market areas. These specialists vary in terms of size. Some have $20 billion Balance Sheets. The largest and most active emanate from the US, the UK and Northern Europe and are taking market share. Despite the earthquake in the financial markets, big banks and government continue to dominate financial markets on mainland Europe with a specific focus on the so-called P.I.G.S. (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain).

This is primarily because P.I.G.S. legal infrastructure when allied with a lack of competition favours big business and tends towards institutionalised oligopolies. The latent fragility of their big banks and savings institutions (Spain is a good example) have made them doubly vulnerable to attack from US, UK and Nordic Banks which have moved in and are aggressively advertising their technology and independence on TV and on the Net.  These institutions are staking out their ground in the hope of stopping the zombies from ever reclaiming this area again in the future. In the case of the UK, if the recent messages from the FSA are to be believed then, we should not expect the zombies to get access to accelerated leverage for a long time as its new regime is likely to cause banks “to pursue strategies which are primarily focused on classic commercial and retail banking activity.” with “fewer resources -- in terms of people or total balance sheet - - devoted to the complex and risky trading activities.”  Delving deeper into the more specialist stock broking sector, serious tectonic shifts in client behaviour since 2008 have seen HNWI investors, professional traders, portfolio managers and funds leave major zombie asset managers and brokers which had been supervised by regulators whose salaries seem to be more impressive than their ability to regulate. These clients headed for the comparative safety of specialist financial intermediaries with no conflicts and no skeletons and their exodus was actively cranked up by the plethora of scandals crawling out of zombie woodwork with clients literally waking up one morning to find out that,”… the bank where I have my Offshore Trading Account is now owned by my government...”. In tandem with these scandals, frauds, abject regulatory failings and bankruptcies, the hijacking of terrorist laws by government for use ‘against bankers’ has only served to further diminish the latter’s standing in the public eye. These “bankers as terrorists” have even appeared on magazines with hand cuffs on and have helped to bang the final nail into the coffin of “My Word is My Bond”.  It has also made the least sophisticated investor less willing to trust any financial institution and not afraid to ask pertinent questions when opening trading accounts: 

         Does your company have any links to banks or institutions that have failed in 2008/9?·         Does any government have a piece of your action?

         Do you have or have you had any links with or invested in asset managers such as Madoff or Stanford?

         Do you have any links with Madoff feeder funds?

        Do you take positions and/ or manage other client assets alongside my trading executions?

         What protection do you offer in addition to the usual measly investor protection scheme?        

Where do you hold client monies and client assets?

         Are client accounts individually segregated?·         What happens if you go down, will my monies be protected?·         “Take me to your Regulator”…


Although it would appear, on balance, that an era of financial specialisation is in the offing as another has ended in the rupture of the world’s biggest banks, the supreme irony is that the specialists who have successfully toed the line and managed the risk time-and-time again have now inherited and will have to pay for the additional distortions, regulatory overreach, costs and knee jerk bureaucracies put into place (directly as shown below or indirectly via expensive new catch-all sawn off shotgun regulation). This will most certainly make recovery more painful and longer lasting. Rather than encouraging and developing best practice within existing financial systems, governments have thrown money into a big black hole of bad and sometimes illegal practices that seems to get hungrier by the day. In Europe, what the ruptured banks have left behind are largely examples of the very distortions that helped to make them what they (were) are.  

Two totally different but glaring examples are EURONEXT and MiFID. Whether by design or not, EURONEXT was a market set up and totally dominated by big banks in Europe from the onset to the detriment of smaller financial institutions, and for a reason. Steep entry costs and high maintenance barriers meant only zombies with their effects of scale and turbo-charged leveraging could afford to be profitable members. Specialist and smaller institutions had no choice but to pay high execution costs or go out of business. Now that the zombies are in no shape to pay for any their EURONEXT costs, tax payers are paying it for them and helping to maintain their zombie monopoly for many years to come, till they pay their debts and receive their ’Get out of Jail’ card from government. 

Another steep barrier to entry for smaller independents is a new bureaucratic self-feeding machine called MiFID, which has spawned hundreds of bureaucrat companies which are willing to teach financial institutions to talk, walk and write procedures just like minded bureaucrats should - for a price. This well meaning piece of bureaucratic architecture was invented at a time when big banks were respected and bank managers were generally held in much higher esteem than mad dog estate agents (how ironic) and clients really did need better general protection.  No one realised what the clients needed protection from were the BANKS, although a reasonable person would have expected, given the huge costs in time and human endeavour spent on this venerable exercise, that these expensive but intelligent bureaucrats would at least have got an inkling of the inherent over-leveraging disease in European banks that they should have been protecting clients FROM.

In any event and again whether by design or not, since its implementation MiFID has only served to reinforce and protect big bank domination by pushing up costs and driving out smaller independents who could not afford it.  Time was when Small and Medium companies were encouraged as they diversified the economy and sometimes became big companies and big banks. The first reason MiFID is so rigid with small companies (and we can only surmise this) is that incumbent big banks with Master of the Universe status and equivalent influence on government and Regulator sold the idea that bigger = better = Less Risk. The jurisdictions that have followed this flawed policy of least risk, to the detriment of the zombie's smaller but healthier competitors are now waking up to smell the coffee as the likes of Stanford, Madoff et al have cut a swathe through their ranks to destroy well chiselled but extremely brittle regulatory careers. The second reason may well hav involved some sort of, as yet, unproven collusion between the architects of MiFID and the Zombies whereby if the former did not include Spot Forex as a regulated activity, the latter would go along with MiFID.

But now we are being told we can all sleep safely in our beds because the zombies are under the control of US and European governments and won’t be selling leverage any more and the dispersion of their power has probably ushered in a new era of specialisation where independents will take over their mantle. Zombies should take their cue from that most famous of Transylvanian Counts and avoid leverage as much as he avoids garlic and stick to their core business: sucking blood slowly and deliberately over a long period of time from clients within “classic commercial and retail banking activity”, as the FSA is suggesting should happen.

16th March 2009. Pierre Bertrand Boulle, MBA, (twitter: @offshorebroker) is the Managing Director and founder of, a regulated stockbroker based on the Rock of Gibraltar with a large selection of online trading platforms for ist clients.  

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The information is a personal opinion and for general guidance only and is not a substitute for professional advice. Investors Europe accepts no responsibility for any actions taken or not taken on the basis the information in this newsletter.


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